The crust is baked with anger, mordant humor, violence, and sex, and is definitely not gluten-free; the cheese melts pop culture with paranoia in a high-saturated-fat mix designed to congeal around the heart immediately upon ingestion; the thematic toppings, like large chunks of spicy sausage, further impede blood flow to the brain.
Have a slice of Paul Haines's new collection, why don't you?
It contains seventeen servings. I'll say right up front that I tend to steer clear of meat-laden pizzas in real life. In almost-real life, if I saw Haines's collection approaching me on the street I'd probably bolt down the alley and into the nearest noodle shop. Look at the cover. It's red on red. Surely that can't be a good sign. But this is review life, which is at least one step removed even from almost-real life; a place where the ordinary laws of physics, dietary nutrition and, in this case, good taste have long ago been suspended. I'm going to talk in detail about only six of the offerings in this unholy and raw amalgam. I wouldn't want either of us to suffer from indigestion.
Let me precede the specifics with a few general words of warning—or perhaps encouragement, depending on your taste. When thinking of Haines's short fiction the word transgressive comes to mind (evoking the works, for instance, of Bukowski, Ballard, Welsh, Ellis, Self, Palahniuk, etc). But on reflection I realize that, even allowing for the speculative elements, Haines isn't systematic or aesthetically consistent in the sense implied by the term, or by the body of work of those writers. One could say that his interests are more diverse; or, if one were less kind, that he is more scattershot in subject matter and approach.
What you'll find plenty of are shocks, creepiness, and sick humor. Not all of the shocking material is really that provocative (though when it isn't, it tends to be funny); not all of the creepy moments work (those that don't tend to be gross), and not all of the humor works (though, on the upside, when it doesn't, it’s usually because of the shock factor). The stories are messy and proud of it. If you consider sobriety, polite speech, and plain human decency to be the vermin of civilization and you're looking for short blasts of flea-killing gas to help alleviate these critter’s bites, Haines is your exterminator of choice.
But inhaling too much of this stuff at one go probably won't be fun even for the most dispossessed aficionado of dark speculative fiction out there. The tics become more evident. Haines habitually uses expletives. Fine. But after a while the colorful language wears itself out and seeps out its drama. Yelling eventually leaves one mute. Modulation and delicate timing, as George Carlin demonstrated throughout decades of expletive-laden comedy, are the key. In this sense I think Haines could control the material more tightly.
Now to particulars. Haines has received the Ditmar and Aurealis awards, among others. I'm not going to spend much time on his award-winning stories, though, because I don't consider that they represent him at his best. Several of the following received prizes, but I am going to give this grouping of stories short shrift:
There are three "Slices of Life," appropriately titled for their butchery; the urban tale of creative block, cats, religion, mental illness, and drugs, of which the title is the most memorable element, "The Devil in Mr. Pussy (Or How I Found God Inside My Wife)"; the somewhat disjointed and blood-drenched study of the weight on a professional killer of a promise made to his drying mother, "This Is the End, Harry, Goodnight!"; a brief excursion into inadvertent telepathy, "Yum Cha"; the literally bestial take on certain well-known fairy tale characters, "Doof Doof Doof"; the extreme quest for transcendence through drugs that turns out differently than expected, "Inducing"; the loopy schizoid time-travel twister "Where Is Brisbane and How Many Times Do I Get There?"; and a couple of others.
Between them these stories explore the themes of mind control, drugs, masturbation, talking cats, and cannibalism—all of which are of potential interest, sure, but would probably be more compelling in smaller measure. A little bit of poison goes a long way. Haines's short fiction seems to be a middle finger raised up against the idea that the half-opened door in the night is scarier than the outright bogeyman. Haines would rather describe the bogeyman in loving, gory detail, and then proceed to catalog how the bogeyman sodomizes your girlfriend, or boyfriend, or your cat, or maybe all three, fuck fuck double fuck. An example of over-wrought imagery: "She handed back thirty-five dollars, attempted a smile that ended up looking alarmingly like a pig’s erection" (from "Inducing", p. 86). I don't remember the last time I saw a pig's erection, but even if I did, it would be difficult to imagine how a smile might resemble it. After reading all the stories in quick succession I found myself thinking that they depicted distantly grotesque worlds, rather than truly unnerving psychological experiences: parallel realities into which Haines the writer yanks us in and pushes along, in several cases introducing Haines the character. But he forces us to see, hear, taste, and smell too much. There's not enough left to imagine.
Another problem is that I consider Haines's characters generally weak. In short, why should I care about their alienated woes? (I will single out his fictional alter ego, Paul Haines, who is quite lively, though inconveniently named.)
In contrast, I find Haines's descriptions of mood and setting generally strong, which brings us to the pieces I want to focus on. Perhaps unsurprisingly given my preceding comment, I've singled out "Going Down with Jennifer Aniston's Breasts" and "The Punjab's Gift"; neither is more than a few pages long, and both are effective at building up atmospheres of dread with sparsely developed characters. "Going Down with Jennifer Aniston's Breasts" has a neat opening paragraph:
The woman next to me is screaming and I wish she wouldn’t. Even though I’m watching Friends on the television without any sound, she's ruining my concentration. (p. 62)
This is an economical start that detonates multiple mysteries in quick succession: why is the woman screaming while the narrator is calm? Why is the narrator watching Friends, of all things? Why no sound? And why must he concentrate, outside, obviously, of the screaming? There are several more unknowns that follow, but in the space of two pages Haines manages to resolve them all in a way that is not only satisfactory but seems inevitable. As a direct metaphor for the deadening effects of popular culture the whole exercise might seem heavy-handed. But I'm not sure that Haines intends such a clear-cut moral position. In fact, I think it’s possible to read the story without a sense of irony regarding the narrator's perceived failings (escapism, self-absorption, fear, cowardice, etc.), but rather as a simple statement of natural human behavior in extreme circumstances. Rather than condemning the narrator's actions, Haines's prose mimics his emotional state, in a way empathizing with and humanizing the stages of his "shutdown."
"The Punjab's Gift" similarly starts with a single narrow point of focus—a description of unusual scents and food textures—and ends up widening its lens until it depicts a life-altering experience. We're not even introduced to any characters until the second paragraph, illustrating their almost subservient role to the imagery of the opening lines; Mike and the first-person narrator exist to reveal the significance of the exotic food and the environment in which it has been prepared. The description throughout tends to be concise, almost blunt. The prose shows—unusually—restraint. When Haines writes that "Two scrawny donkeys pull an overladen cart of baked dung and the small boy aboard pauses in his whipping to flash us a grin" (p. 65) one is almost surprised he doesn't spend more time detailing and analogizing the dung. It feels like we've entered a naturalist narrative that enjoys its own minimalism. Where are the speculative elements? The story's ending casts doubt on whether they’re even necessary. What this story reveals about Haines is his observational skill and the fact he can craft a suspenseful narrative out of elementary materials—a couple of characters abroad. Maybe Haines ought to attempt more sustained efforts, even a novel, in this vein.
Similar in its construction as a kind of realistic tale of travel in a foreign land is "Shot In Loralai." The narrative is more expansive, though no less tense, and more aggressive in its declaration of principles:
The news preaches terror and the world is closing its borders. Hatred and mistrust printed across dark skin and long beards, tattooed in blond hair and blue eyes. For me it was a Western ignorance buried deep in the fear of a different skin, a foreign culture. For them? I can only guess. (p. 126)
Normally I might have reservations about an opening that so explicitly reveals the story's theme (a theme, at that, so fraught with the potential to encourage proselytizing rather than storytelling). But, surrounded as this is by other infinitely more wacked-out tales, it feels refreshing to know we’re going to be exploring "real" issues, or at least be immersed in a political world which is easy for us to relate to. I enjoyed the interactions between the Western and non-Western characters that ensue, with their often seemingly improvised, discursive exchanges, and how the narrative almost seems to drift into anecdote on a few occasions without ever losing its edge and sense of danger. It is unpredictable. The use of drugs is also more tasteful and commensurate with the needs of the story here than it is, say, in something like the crazed "Inducing" or "The Devil in Mr. Pussy (Or How I Found God Inside My Wife)."
"Mnemophonic" is, once again, somewhat modest in its ambitions, but effective in the way it develops atmosphere and ambivalence. Section after section of the story introduces new character viewpoints, but the descriptions provided by one allow us to tease out who the next one is, and so on, so rather than creating confusion the rotating-viewpoint technique generates suspense. It also reinforces the story's central theme of identity. By presenting admittedly generic forces that tamper with identity Haines emphasizes its underlying fragility. If we take "mnemo" as relating to memory and "phonic" to sound, the story's title cleverly conflates the central mechanism of memory evocation through music. I admit that another reason I might have enjoyed this story more than others is that the subject matter of memory manipulation and erasure has a rich history in speculative fiction, and continues to prove fertile ground for thoughtful treatments such as John Kessel's recent "Clean" (Asimov's, March 2011).
If "Mnemophonic" feels a little like The X-Files, then "(It's Not Like) The Good Old Days" is more like that show's truncated follow-up Harsh Realm. The setup isn’t exactly humans trapped in a simulated reality, but rather humans who have physically died and continue to exist as simulated entities—for monthly payments. The premise is rife with logistical complications, including imagining the workings of the society in which the story's reBirthdays might become a reality—all of which Haines wisely sidesteps in favor of a more satirical approach. This is the most Cory Doctorow-like we're likely to see Haines, and despite a few minor moments of seeming redundancy, I was pleasantly impressed. If you consider that adware is irritating while surfing the web, you’ll get a whole new appreciation for the insidious terrors of unwanted viral marketing in this outing.
Memories are usurped in "Mnemophonic," and physical bodies transcended in "(It's Not Like) The Good Old Days": somewhere between these two extremes of transformation is "Lifelike and Josephine," in which one female character, Denise, undergoes ceaseless physical surgeries, while her husband, Bernard, practically suppresses his thoughts and memories of her unending, obsessive quest for physical beautification. I'd like to give Haines kudos for pushing this one even farther than I was expecting. There’s one priceless scene where, for once, the explicitness of the sex really culminates in a moment of surprising and genuinely groan-inducing humor. I also think this story reveals interesting gender dynamics and power relations. At first it appears that Denise is the more helpless of the couple: the victim, if you will. She appears to suffer from an extreme version of something resembling body dysmorphic disorder, and that encourages us to be sympathetic, or at least cognizant of the fact that her judgment and clarity are in question due to her mental illness. It's really Bernard, though, who we find is profoundly insecure and leads a subjugated life. He may not be a slave to an easily identifiable psychological disorder, but he is incapable of taking any action to either help his wife or himself. He is, in the non-sexual sense, impotent. After Bernard witnesses the story's first description of bodily alteration in the opening lines, his reaction is "Go with it," a sentiment that is echoed several times. His complacency remains unshaken throughout, so that in the end we wonder whether what initially appeared to be simply deep-seated conflict-avoidance is in fact a more perverse form of tacit approval, or maybe even encouragement and sadism.
This collection has helped me to realize that as a reader of dark fiction I prefer less sensory excess and more implication. I favor inner landscapes and more prolonged, delicate suffering in my horror; a way to open up the fictional possibilities of Trauma and then inhabit them, rather than a flirtation with shock; I want something closer to what Gary K. Wolfe and Amelia Beamer term "transcendental horror" when discussing the fiction of Peter Straub in Evaporating Genres.
Maybe this all my fault. Maybe I take horror too seriously, and don't like it hijacked for sort of transgressive ends. Maybe I experienced the stories in the wrong reading mode; I had unfair expectations, and so on. Maybe I consumed them too soon one after the other. Maybe I'm just the Wrong Reader. I have a sneaking suspicion that Haines's Ideal Reader would rough me up, force me to take acid, and cut out my gizzard while I'm high. I wouldn't want to meet Him. (It's definitely a Him, not a Her. I say this because in many of his stories women are described in terms of the size of their breasts and little else besides.) I'd much rather just stay home and do the dishes, and then maybe settle down with a long apocalypse, like The Stand, which I’ve always wanted to read.
You may consider this review to be peppered with the grumblings of a conservative reader. I'd like to point out that my sensitivity isn’t the real issue here, because I wasn't offended by the material on hand. I wonder, though: should I have been? Would I have enjoyed the stories more if I'd found their contents repulsive and therefore enjoyed them less? I've elaborated on those pieces I found varyingly rewarding, but the rest are already blurring in my mind, a bevy of trippy paranoia, bizarre sex, and occasional dismemberment.
Those sorts of dalliances are like a one-night stand. I prefer my punishment to be more of a long-term relationship.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters earned a BS in Theoretical Physics and studied creative writing. He now lives in California. His fiction has appeared in Farrago's Wainscot, Neon Literary Magazine, and other online venues. His reviews and critical essays have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Foundation, and elsewhere. If you too are waiting for your own pet Aineko, visit Alvaro's blog.